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Morbid Angel – Formulas Fatal to the Flesh
You can say that Covenant was the turning point, the sign of change for Florida veterans Morbid Angel when they boarded the ship bound for the shores of modern death metal. It was 1993 and death metal, though it had been around for a while, was for many achieving its apex and defining what would be called its modern form. For a lot of bands the early 90’s was the setting for the departure from thrash and the grasping of an identity they could truly call their own. Morbid Angel was just such a band and like it or not Covenant replaced the rapid-fire punky rhythms and raspy assault of the band's first two albums with a streamlined, down-tuned, and overall fuller and heavier sound that represented the trademarks of death metal to come.
Some rejoiced at this development and others bemoaned it, upset by the more linear beats and riffs and not impressed by the gruffness the band adopted. But without getting into Covenant itself too much, it can be said that understanding that album can’t be done without a longer gaze, and whether Covenant was the beginning of something new or simply another step in a continuing path, Morbid Angel were both adopting the new death metal standards and adapting their signature sound. Proof of this came along with ‘95’s follow up, Domination, a divisive album characterized by great success and damning failures. The inconsistency of this album ushered in a tumultuous period for the band, a period defined by successes and failures. While Domination found itself on the wrong side of that line, Its successor did not.
Formulas Fatal to the Flesh, on the surface, is a return to Covenant values: the mix is consistent and robust, the most dense and punishing of the band’s career – only Gateways to Annihilation was comparable, and it didn’t have the crunch of it’s predecessor. The guitar work is, structurally, also a return to Covenant, abandoning the large, epic and often pointless style from Domination and keeping things active throughout. New vocalist Steve Tucker also continues the rough baritone David Vincent had adopted since Covenant. Looking a little deeper, though, we see that Domination isn’t entirely forgotten: the riffing itself is much the same grinding, rolling affair that made the good moments of Domination so good, and the drumming is a similar barrage of blasts and double bass rolls, though not without the nuance Pete Sandoval has always managed to work in. Formulas, ultimately, corrected many of the mistakes of Domination while, at its core, staying true to that album’s essential musical traits. To see Formulas only in reference to Covenant, while tempting, makes it impossible to understand.
In the first place, Formulas was the heaviest material the band had put out to date. From the first devastating chord of “Heaving Earth” it is evident that this is not just an evolution but an overreaction. After the hollow sound of Domination, Formulas, employs an extremely crunchy, buzzy and distorted guitar tone that envelopes all the riffs, chords and harmonies. These songs have to be listened to actively and with diligence to be heard and understood. “Heaving Earth” is full of complex riffs that slip right under your nose if you’re not paying attention, and “Chamber of Dis” features some blistering finger work that employs the standard chug-chug as well as some truly painful discordant harmonies. Make no mistake, this is technical death metal, just not in the style of a Necrophagist or Spawn of Possession. The violence of the music is almost in direct opposition to Dominations attempt to thrive on pace and progression.
The riffs are not all fast and technical though – for every face melting, finger-burning section there is one that demonstrates the harmonic brilliance of the band. “Nothing is Not” is perhaps the best example of this – a slower song featuring extremely low chords and perfectly paced mid tempo riffing that brings out the sheer power of the material here. It’s that typical death metal style but with Trey Azagthoth’s soon-to-be-trademark sluggish- and sludginess. Songs like “Umulamahri” trudge along deliberately, as though resisted at every step but forging ever forward with unstoppable force. Here is the sonic precursor to the sludgefest that is Gateways to Annihilation, probably Morbid Angel’s most definitive statement of uniqueness and originality coupled with precise and controlled power. This is the legacy of Domination, what the album should have and tried to achieve with significantly stunted success.
One of the champions of that unsuccess was the vocal production. At times, we had good, powerful, if not overly guttural, growls, but at other times the ridiculous reverb and various effects rendered them totally silly. Even at their best, they lacked the fullness of the bellows on display throughout the genre. Steve Tucker’s delivery isn’t that different, but it’s utterly consistent, never varying from that harsh, rasping bark. The sort of flat quality to his delivery allows his outbursts to glide along the surface of the instrumental juggernaut that they accompany and complement the discordant, dissonant element of the sound. His barks are fast and his timing is excellent, allowing him to keep up with the faster sections, and he never falls into the sort of muddy, incoherent gurgling that, while enjoyable, would detract from the constrained madness that this album is. The vocals here are clearly meant to ruffle no feathers, to be a fitting accompaniment to the music that has been so refined.
Depth is another quality that sets apart the music found here. Whereas Domination was overly transparent, with all the sounds too isolated and unable to cohere with the necessary power of a death metal offering, Formulas is immersive in the best way. All the sounds layer perfectly on top of one another in a decipherable yet synergistic fashion so that they individually overpower everything else and work together to form a massive whole. On the low end, Pete Sandoval’s drumming demonstrates how all metal drums should sound: the bass drum is deep and low, loud yet not triggered to death so that it covers everything else, with the sort of soft thud that makes it almost enchanting; tom hits are marked by a very percussive quality – they sound like a drum, not just like their actual tone; the snare is perfectly crisp, rising up above all the others with just the right amount of reverb – it pops when he blasts and yet flows smoothly when called upon repeatedly. Aside from the tone, the drumbeats are almost all great. His blasting is crazy fast, as on “Heaving Earth” and “Chambers of Dis” and his double bass beats are groovy and catchy as on “Nothing is Not” and “Prayer of Hatred.” Fills are fast and well placed but never overdone or overabundant. Pete, like the rest of the band, perfectly toes the line of technicality, mixing in just enough to impress and amaze without sacrificing the identity or functionality of any song.
But there’s a whole other side of this album that hasn’t even been mentioned – the genius and novelty of Trey Azagthoth. I could write this whole review about his riffs alone and that wouldn’t even do him justice. Aside from the fast, heavy, technical riffs and awesome harmonies there are the mind-bending solos, another vestige of Domination’s innovation but here allowed to shine. “Heaving Earth” gives the first taste, this one short but sweet, a lick ascending from utter darkness into magnificent splendor and then flaming out, like a solar flare erupting from the molten surface. “Chambers of Dis” has two, each featuring blazing shredding and whining, high strung chords that tear at the fibers of the mind. Trey passes seamlessly from high to low, at times dropping so far he can barely be heard and at others soaring so high the sounds are barely distinguishable as actual notes. “Covenant of Death” features some classic tapping and arpeggios with the typical overdose of gain out of which bursts forth a great melodic lead traveling at light speed. And there are many others. Throughout the album are the searing melodies of Azagthoth, dancing along the surface of the crunchy guitar tone, meandering into and out of the hellish miasma underneath. When he wants to he can be extremely melodic, such as the end of “Covenant of Death” and the incredible next song, “Hymn to a Gas Giant.” Trey’s guitar work here is at times like a caustic sludge, at others like an eruption into flame and at others like a cloud of nebular gases sublimely wafting through the void. He touches upon the greatest evils of the mortal world and the most supreme limits of existence just as this album traverses an equally vast and analogous region. Nothing could demonstrate this better than the final true song on the album, “Invocation to a Continual One,” a microcosm of the album itself, containing, within its nearly 10 minutes every feature of the album mentioned above packaged within the kind of punky beats of the band’s older material, as though to show you, all at once, where they were, where they are and, presumably, where they’re headed.
This album is everything Domination should have been: starting with a standard death metal formula it incorporates even heavier, sludgier tones, fast and pummeling drumming and rhythms, powerful and abrasive vocals, coherent songwriting and enchanting melodies. That said, it does suffer from a few shortcomings: for a 13 song endeavor, it’s a little short on material. The final three songs are all ambient interludes, which Morbid Angel do very well, but which here are thrown in at the end, separating nothing, leading to nothing, transitioning between nothing; further, true to its form as a response to the somewhat eclectic Domination, it can get tedious, especially with such a deluge of notes and strokes in the first 30 minutes. That said, it does what Domination could not, making the most of everything it has and making it seem like more, the opposite of its precursor.
That we view Formulas so heavily in terms of Domination is a testament to both the struggles and ambition of the band beginning with Covenant, traits that run right through to the following albums as well. Despite all its successes, Formulas was not the definitive statement for this adventurous outfit, a title that, if ever applicable, belongs to the subsequent offering, the demolishing Gateways to Annihilation. It’s as though it swung so hard in the opposite direction from Domination that it too missed the mark, and despite being a compelling and laudable album was perhaps mired a little too much in the conventional. Still, its merits, many of which are shared among the bands discography, are undeniable and its execution is a marvel, and if it is only one chapter in the story that is Morbid Angel we can only be thankful that such a saga exists for us listeners to parse.
Written for www.leprousgarden.com